13th Sunday after Pentecost – 8/30/2020
Now that we find ourselves again in the throes of agonizing political rhetoric and electioneering for the Presidency of the United States of America, have you noticed how much we once again hear about evil? It was almost as if evil didn't exist for so long. Oh, yes, we heard a lot about "bad" things, "sinister" motives, and "tragic" events. But few people, especially political types, have ever characterized such things as "evil."
But now that it's time to select the next president, the word "evil" is suddenly back in everyone's vocabulary. If you listen to the talking points of Democrats and their allies in the news media, evil is genuinely and exclusively incarnate in the person of Donald Trump. On the other hand, according to many on the Trump 2020 train, the great evil and existential threat to our country is the socialist/Marxist ideology that has hijacked the Democratic Party and the educational elites of our society.
Regarding politics and relations between competing nations and ideologies, people have no problem recognizing evil, at least what they consider sin. In 2002, during his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush quickly identified what he called the "axis of evil." He said it comprised the regimes of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. On the other hand, many in the Islamic world have consistently denounced the United States as evil and the Great Satan.
The problem with all this name-calling and politicization of evil is that not only is the identification of evil often arbitrary and falsely assigned, but it also plays right into the hands of real evil by getting us to kill, devour, and destroy each other. "Evil," by its very Biblical definition, is that which opposes and is contrary to God and His will. Therefore, evil is not confined to one person, political party, or country.
Since the fall into sin, evil has permeated all of creation. Evil resides in both you and me. On one occasion, when He was teaching His disciples about the good and gracious nature of God, Jesus instead shockingly said to them, "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father, who is in heaven, give good things to those who ask him?" (Matt. 7:11). Not one of us can escape evil's clutches or the charge of being evil. God's observation of humanity before the Great Flood is still on target. The LORD said, "The wickedness of man was (and is) great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was (and continues to be) only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). Jesus has further remarked, "From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts: sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness." "All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person" (Mark 7:21–23).
When evil is so pervasive, how can we who are evil escape it, defeat it, or destroy it? We need to be honest, therefore! All political talking points aside. No man, even if he occupies the White House, one particular ideology, or a human strategy or plan of action, can defeat evil. Anything corrupted by sin cannot defeat evil.
Evil has only one nemesis—one enemy that can defeat it. Evil can only be conquered by good! And just as the English word "good" originates in the word "God," true good only stems from God! God is good.
What a critical text our Epistle Lesson is for those who are evil, live in a sinful world, and try not to be consumed by evil. In the final verse, St. Paul, the LORD's apostle, exhorts us: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Paul himself had no fear of evil. Why is Saul, the high priest of Jerusalem, an envoy to eradicate Christians and the Christian faith when we first see him in the pages of the Holy Scripture? He was arresting and throwing Christians right and left into prison simply for following Jesus. Paul even stood as the official witness to Stephen's stoning to death! But not only was Saul well known for dispensing evil, but later in the Book of Acts, we see him as an actual punching bag for evil himself. After Jesus converted Saul and sent him out to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles under his new name, Paul, he became the poster child for the most abused and tortured Christians on earth. Friends betrayed Paul, and he was arrested and imprisoned frequently, beaten and scourged, stoned, and left for dead. Ultimately, he was beheaded by a most crooked and wicked politician, the Roman Caesar.
Of all people, then, Paul ought to know how to deal with evil effectively. He says, under the inspiration of God, the Holy Spirit, "Evil can only be conquered by good."
Think about it. That makes perfect sense, then, why the ultimate goal of evil is always to keep you and me from God and what is good. Whether through false teaching and wicked propaganda, lustful enticements from the world and our flesh, or outright murderous threats and force, evil will do whatever it takes to keep us away from God, His truth, and the good that flows from Him. Evil knows and fears what will defeat it.
Now, this sounds like evil has a mind of its own. Bingo! Evil does have a wicked sense of its own. Evil is not just some indiscriminate, aimless entity that happens to reside in this world. Evil has a personal force behind it. That striking force is Satan, the enemy of God. And you and I can be sure of this: This enemy has designed your demise and my fall.
Accordingly, in these verses, just as Paul uses the definite article "the" with good, so he does with evil. He says, "Do not be conquered by evil." Just as God is the source of good, Satan is the source of evil.
The lie is now one of Satan's most potent weapons. He is, after all, the deceiver, the devil,a liar, and the Father of lies, as Scripture calls him (Jn. 8:44). One of the devil's most significant lies is that the greatest evil is death. Many people believe that if they can keep evil from killing them, they will have defeated it. And, of course, it is then assumed that if you can destroy what is evil or the people committing it, you are conquering evil.
We have been in Afghanistan for two decades now, killing terrorists. Have we managed to conquer evil, or has evil destroyed us? Look at the division among our citizens, not to mention the tremendous cost in American lives and the treasure that we as a nation have suffered fighting this war. And the irony is that despite our taking the battle to them, Islamic terrorism and hatred for America have only increased.
Whenever we use evil tactics, we are not conquering evil. If we are using evil means, then evil has accomplished its goal in us, and we have been overwhelmed by it. One must thwart its intent to conquer sin and plan to free those in its grip. That can only be accomplished by defeating evil with good.
So what is the good that defeats evil? The apostle Paul fleshes out that good in the rest of this text. He begins with what is at the heart of good: love. Now, join Dionne Warwick in singing the chorus: "What the world needs now is love, sweet love."It's the only thing that there's just too little of." Let me say that the love the world needs—and that you and I need—is not the syrupy, sappy, emotional love the world loves to sing.
In these verses, Paul goes to great lengths to define the type of love the world requires, which is good that overcomes evil.
He does not do so by lecturing us with imperatives as to what you and I ought to be doing. He uses no imperatives in the first five verses but describes what this love is with adjectives and descriptive participles. It is as if Paul is saying, "This is what love is like!" (Middendorf).
Here is the goodness of love that conquers evil: It is love without hypocrisy. It is despising what is wicked, being attached to what is good, being devoted to brotherly love, esteeming one another with honor, not holding back in eagerness, being enthusiastic in spirit, rejoicing in hope, bearing up under tribulation, being fervent in prayer, sharing in, or contributing towards, the needs of the saints (believers), and pursuing hospitality, literally loving strangers.
Wow, this is more than a mouthful! Such love sounds other-worldly. Indeed, it is! That is agape love! It is God's love for you, me, and all the other sinners in this world. It's enfleshed in the person of Jesus. That is the love that is most clearly seen on the cross of Jesus. There we see that this love is purposeful, intelligent, self-sacrificing, and utterly underserved by the loved. It's love for the unlovable. Only those who know and have experienced this love in Christ can love in like fashion and, in the process, defeat evil with their passion. That includes you and me, dear fellow redeemed in Christ. We are to be on the front lines, defeating evil with the goodness of the love of Christ.
Now, how do you exercise that love? Paul also expresses himself very clearly and eloquently. This time, he speaks in imperatives. He says, "Bless those who persecute you; bless them and do not curse them." Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to doing what is honorable in the sight of all. "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" (Ro. 12:14–18).
One thing is missing from this loving mindset: That thing is itself. Instead, it is all about the other guy's needs and welfare. You can't be arrogant if you think first about others. Conceit is incompatible with doing what's best for others. In this love, you want to build everything well and speak well of everyone, even those who have hurt you somehow. You are so focused on others that you rejoice in their joys and weep with them in their losses. Like our Lord, who loved those driving nails into His hands and feet by imploring the Father to forgive them, you also want to do good to those who have done you evil.
Now, such love is genuinely radical. More than that, it is so off the charts, as far as the devil and the world are concerned, that it often catches evil off guard. So much so that evil frequently doesn't know how to respond to such love. In bewilderment and fear at such love toward them, those controlled by sin might react in rage and hatred or, by God's grace working through such love, be rescued from the chains of evil that have enslaved them.
Accordingly, Paul concludes with these final exhortations: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay," says the Lord. To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head."
If there was ever a time to heed such wise counsel, it is now. Within the very borders of our land, battle lines have never been more clearly drawn since the great Civil War. It's conservatives against liberals, Republicans against Democrats, free marketers against socialists, those who revere the Constitution against those who want to tear it up, those who believe in free markets and individual responsibilities against those who wish to government control of needs and government mandates, and those who see our nation as a fair and just land guided by the principle of equal justice for all against those who view our country as totally corrupted by systematic racism and inequality. The division has bled into the streets with violent rioting, looting, destruction, and cries for vengeance and reparations.
Whatever evil has seized the people of our nation and brought forth such division, vitriol, and hatred, it will not be conquered by more evil. In politics or personal relationships, evil can only be defeated by good brought about by Jesus Christ's love for our world. If our enemy is hungry, we feed him, not starve him. If he is thirsty, we give him something to drink. The following is a list of things that you should do. That is love without hypocrisy!
Besides, vengeance lies alone with God. He alone is the Judge of Heaven and Earth. His wrath against evil is infinitely more severe than any repayment we might attempt to exact from those we feel have hurt us. The LORD, who does not lie, has decreed, "I will repay!" No evil gets by God without being judged.
At the same time, God's wrath against evil is infinitely severe, and so is His mercy toward those who repent of their iniquity. The LORD has declared, "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?" (Ezek. 18:23)
Evil's aim is always to destroy, but God's is always to save. Any love we show to our enemies might be the final coals of fire that God in His grace can use to bring such anguish to the wicked one's spirit (Augustine) that he might at long last see his wretchedness, repent, and desire God's mercy in Jesus Christ. And then, how joyously the angels of heaven will sing that evil and the evil one are once again conquered by good! Amen!